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The Host (Chapter 9: Discovered)

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I drove quickly through the I-10 junction as the sun fell behind me. I didn't see much besides the white and yellow lines on the pavement, and the occasional big green sign pointing me farther east. I was in a hurry now.

I wasn't sure exactly what I was in a hurry for, though. To be out of this, I supposed. Out of pain, out of sadness, out of aching for lost and hopeless loves. Did that mean out of this body? I couldn't think of any other answer. I would still ask my questions of the Healer, but it felt as though the decision was made. Skipper. Quitter. I tested the words in my head, trying to come to terms with them.

If I could find a way, I would keep Melanie out of the Seeker's hands. It would be very hard. No, it would be impossible.

I would try.

I promised her this, but she wasn't listening. She was still dreaming. Giving up, I thought, now that it was too late for giving up to help.

I tried to stay clear of the red canyon in her head, but I was there, too. No matter how hard I tried to see the cars zooming beside me, the shuttles gliding in toward the port, the few, fine clouds drifting overhead, I couldn't pull completely free of her dreams. I memorized Jared's face from a thousand different angles. I watched Jamie shoot up in a sudden growth spurt, always skin and bones. My arms ached for them both-no, the feeling was sharper than an ache, blade-edged and violent. It was intolerable. I had to get out.

I drove almost blindly along the narrow two-lane freeway. The desert was, if anything, more monotonous and dead than before. Flatter, more colorless. I would make it to Tucson long before dinnertime. Dinner. I hadn't eaten yet today, and my stomach rumbled as I realized that.

The Seeker would be waiting for me there. My stomach rolled then, hunger momentarily replaced with nausea. Automatically, my foot eased off the gas.

I checked the map on the passenger seat. Soon I would reach a little pit stop at a place called Picacho Peak. Maybe I would stop to eat something there. Put off seeing the Seeker a few precious moments.

As I thought of this unfamiliar name-Picacho Peak-there was a strange, stifled reaction from Melanie. I couldn't make it out. Had she been here before? I searched for a memory, a sight or a smell that corresponded, but found nothing. Picacho Peak. Again, there was that spike of interest that Melanie repressed. What did the words mean to her? She retreated into faraway memories, avoiding me.

This made me curious. I drove a little faster, wondering if the sight of the place would trigger something.

A solitary mountain peak-not massive by normal standards, but towering above the low, rough hills closer to me-was beginning to take shape on the horizon. It had an unusual, distinctive shape. Melanie watched it grow as we traveled, pretending indifference to it.

Why did she pretend not to care when she so obviously did? I was disturbed by her strength when I tried to find out. I couldn't see any way around the old blank wall. It felt thicker than usual, though I'd thought it was almost gone.

I tried to ignore her, not wanting to think about that-that she was growing stronger. I watched the peak instead, tracing its shape against the pale, hot sky. There was something familiar about it. Something I was sure I recognized, even as I was positive that neither of us had been here before.

Almost as if she was trying to distract me, Melanie plunged into a vivid memory of Jared, catching me by surprise.

I shiver in my jacket, straining my eyes to see the muted glare of the sun dying behind the thick, bristly trees. I tell myself that it is not as cold as I think it is. My body just isn't used to this.

The hands that are suddenly there on my shoulders do not startle me, though I am afraid of this unfamiliar place and I did not hear his silent approach. Their weight is too familiar.

"You're easy to sneak up on."

Even now, there is a smile in his voice.

"I saw you coming before you took the first step," I say without turning. "I have eyes in the back of my head."

Warm fingers stroke my face from my temple to my chin, dragging fire along my skin.

"You look like a dryad hidden here in the trees," he whispers in my ear. "One of them. So beautiful that you must be fictional."

"We should plant more trees around the cabin."

He chuckles, and the sound makes my eyes close and my lips stretch into a grin.

"Not necessary," he says. "You always look that way."

"Says the last man on Earth to the last woman on Earth, on the eve of their separation."

My smile fades as I speak. Smiles cannot last today.

He sighs. His breath on my cheek is warm compared to the chill forest air.

"Jamie might resent that implication."

"Jamie's still a boy. Please, please keep him safe."

"I'll make you a deal," Jared offers. "You keep yourself safe, and I'll do my best. Otherwise, no deal."

Just a joke, but I can't take it lightly. Once we are apart, there are no guarantees. "No matter what happens," I insist.

"Nothing's going to happen. Don't worry." The words are nearly meaningless. A waste of effort. But his voice is worth hearing, no matter the message.

"Okay."

He pulls me around to face him, and I lean my head against his chest. I don't know what to compare his scent to. It is his own, as unique as the smell of juniper or the desert rain.

"You and I won't lose each other," he promises. "I will always find you again." Being Jared, he cannot be completely serious for more than a heartbeat or two. "No matter how well you hide. I'm unstoppable at hide-and-seek."

"Will you give me to the count of ten?"

"Without peeking."

"You're on," I mumble, trying to disguise the fact that my throat is thick with tears.

"Don't be afraid. You'll be fine. You're strong, you're fast, and you're smart." He's trying to convince himself, too.

Why am I leaving him? It's such a long shot that Sharon is still human.

But when I saw her face on the news, I was so sure.

It was just a normal raid, one of a thousand. As usual when we felt isolated enough, safe enough, we had the TV on as we cleaned out the pantry and fridge. Just to get the weather forecast; there isn't much entertainment in the dead-boring everything-is-perfect reports that pass for news among the parasites. It was the hair that caught my eye-the flash of deep, almost pink red that I'd only ever seen on one person.

I can still see the look on her face as she peeked at the camera from the corner of one eye. The look that said, I'm trying to be invisible; don't see me. She walked not quite slowly enough, working too hard at keeping a casual pace. Trying desperately to blend in.

No body snatcher would feel that need.

What is Sharon doing walking around human in a huge city like Chicago? Are there others? Trying to find her doesn't even seem like a choice, really. If there is a chance there are more humans out there, we have to locate them.

And I have to go alone. Sharon will run from anyone but me-well, she will run from me, too, but maybe she will pause long enough for me to explain. I am sure I know her secret place.

"And you?" I ask him in a thick voice. I'm not sure I can physically bear this looming goodbye. "Will you be safe?"

"Neither heaven nor hell can keep me apart from you, Melanie."

Without giving me a chance to catch my breath or wipe away the fresh tears, she threw another at me.

Jamie curls up under my arm-he doesn't fit the way he used to. He has to fold in on himself, his long, gangly limbs poking out in sharp angles. His arms are starting to turn hard and sinewy, but in this moment he's a child, shaking, cowering almost. Jared is loading the car. Jamie would not show this fear if he were here. Jamie wants to be brave, to be like Jared.

"I'm scared," he whispers.

I kiss his night-dark hair. Even here among the sharp, resinous trees, it smells like dust and sun. It feels like he is part of me, that to separate us will tear the skin where we are joined.

"You'll be fine with Jared." I have to sound brave, whether I feel that way or not.

"I know that. I'm scared for you. I'm scared you won't come back. Like Dad."

I flinch. When Dad didn't come back-though his body did eventually, trying to lead the Seekers to us-it was the most horror and the most fear and the most pain I'd ever felt. What if I do that to Jamie again?

"I'll come back. I always come back."

"I'm scared," he says again.

I have to be brave.

"I promise everything will be fine. I'm coming back. I promise. You know I won't break a promise, Jamie. Not to you."

The shaking slows. He believes me. He trusts me.

And another:

I can hear them on the floor below. They will find me in minutes, or seconds. I scrawl the words on a dirty shred of newsprint. They are nearly illegible, but if he finds them, he will understand:

Not fast enough. Love you love Jamie. Don't go home.

Not only do I break their hearts, I steal their refuge, too. I picture our little canyon home abandoned, as it must be forever now. Or if not abandoned, a tomb. I see my body leading the Seekers to it. My face smiling as we catch them there…

"Enough," I said out loud, cringing away from the whiplash of pain. "Enough! You've made your point! I can't live without them either now. Does that make you happy? Because it doesn't leave me many choices, does it? Just one-to get rid of you. Do you want the Seeker inside you? Ugh!" I recoiled from the thought as if I would be the one to house her.

There is another choice, Melanie thought softly.

"Really?" I demanded with heavy sarcasm. "Show me one."

Look and see.

I was still staring at the mountain peak. It dominated the landscape, a sudden upthrust of rock surrounded by flat scrubland. Her interest pulled my eyes over the outline, tracing the uneven two-pronged crest.

A slow, rough curve, then a sharp turn north, another sudden turn back the other way, twisting back to the north for a longer stretch, and then the abrupt southern decline that flattened out into another shallow curve.

Not north and south, the way I'd always seen the lines in her piecemeal memories; it was up and down.

The profile of a mountain peak.

The lines that led to Jared and Jamie. This was the first line, the starting point.

I could find them.

We could find them, she corrected me. You don't know all the directions. Just like with the cabin, I never gave you everything.

"I don't understand. Where does it lead? How does a mountain lead us?" My pulse beat faster as I thought of it: Jared was close. Jamie, within my reach.

She showed me the answer.

"They're just lines. And Uncle Jeb is just an old lunatic. A nut job, like the rest of my dad's family." I try to tug the book out of Jared's hands, but he barely seems to notice my effort.

"A nut job, like Sharon's mom?" he counters, still studying the dark pencil marks that deface the back cover of the old photo album. It's the one thing I haven't lost in all the running. Even the graffiti loony Uncle Jeb left on it during his last visit has sentimental value now.

"Point taken." If Sharon is still alive, it will be because her mother, loony Aunt Maggie, could give loony Uncle Jeb a run for the title of Craziest of the Crazy Stryder Siblings. My father had been only slightly touched by the Stryder madness-he didn't have a secret bunker in the backyard or anything. The rest of them, his sister and brothers, Aunt Maggie, Uncle Jeb, and Uncle Guy, were the most devoted of conspiracy theorists. Uncle Guy had died before the others disappeared during the invasion, in a car accident so commonplace that even Maggie and Jeb had struggled to make an intrigue out of it.

My father always affectionately referred to them as the Crazies. "I think it's time we visited the Crazies," Dad would announce, and then Mom would groan-which is why such announcements had happened so seldom.

On one of those rare visits to Chicago, Sharon had snuck me into her mother's hidey-hole. We got caught-the woman had booby traps every-where. Sharon was scolded soundly, and though I was sworn to secrecy, I'd had a sense Aunt Maggie might build a new sanctuary.

But I remember where the first is. I picture Sharon there now, living the life of Anne Frank in the middle of an enemy city. We have to find her and bring her home.

Jared interrupts my reminiscing. "Nut jobs are exactly the kind of people who will have survived. People who saw Big Brother when he wasn't there. People who suspected the rest of humanity before the rest of humanity turned dangerous. People with hiding places ready." Jared grins, still study-ing the lines. And then his voice is heavier. "People like my father. If he and my brothers had hidden rather than fought… Well, they'd still be here."

My tone is softer, hearing the pain in his. "Okay, I agree with the theory. But these lines don't mean anything."

"Tell me again what he said when he drew them."

I sigh. "They were arguing-Uncle Jeb and my dad. Uncle Jeb was trying to convince him that something was wrong, telling him not to trust anyone. Dad laughed it off. Jeb grabbed the photo album from the end table and started… almost carving the lines into the back cover with a pencil. Dad got mad, said my mom would be angry. Jeb said, ��Linda's mom asked you all to come up for a visit, right? Kind of strange, out of the blue? Got a little upset when only Linda would come? Tell you the truth, Trev, I don't think Linda will be minding anything much when she gets back. Oh, she might act like it, but you'll be able to tell the difference.' It didn't make sense at the time, but what he said really upset my dad. He ordered Uncle Jeb out of the house. Jeb wouldn't leave at first. Kept warning us not to wait until it was too late. He grabbed my shoulder and pulled me into his side. ��Don't let 'em get you, honey,' he whispered. ��Follow the lines. Start at the beginning and follow the lines. Uncle Jeb'll keep a safe place for you.' That's when Dad shoved him out the door."

Jared nods absently, still studying. "The beginning… the beginning… It has to mean something."

"Does it? They're just squiggles, Jared. It's not like a map-they don't even connect."

"There's something about the first one, though. Something familiar. I could swear I've seen it somewhere before."

I sigh. "Maybe he told Aunt Maggie. Maybe she got better directions."

"Maybe," he says, and continues to stare at Uncle Jeb's squiggles.

She dragged me back in time, to a much, much older memory-a memory that had escaped her for a long while. I was surprised to realize that she had only put these memories, the old and the fresh, together recently. After I was here. That was why the lines had slipped through her careful control despite the fact that they were one of the most precious of her secrets-because of the urgency of her discovery.

In this blurry early memory, Melanie sat in her father's lap with the same album-not so tattered then-open in her hands. Her hands were tiny, her fingers stubby. It was very strange to remember being a child in this body.

They were on the first page.

"Do you remember where this is?" Dad asks, pointing to the old gray picture at the top of the page. The paper looks thinner than the other photographs, as if it has worn down-flatter and flatter and flatter-since some great-great-grandpa took it.

"It's where we Stryders come from," I answer, repeating what I've been taught.

"Right. That's the old Stryder ranch. You went there once, but I bet you don't remember it. I think you were eighteen months old." Dad laughs. "It's been Stryder land since the very beginning…"

And then the memory of the picture itself. A picture she'd looked at a thousand times without ever seeing it. It was black and white, faded to grays. A small rustic wooden house, far away on the other side of a desert field; in the foreground, a split-rail fence; a few equine shapes between the fence and the house. And then, behind it all, the sharp, familiar profile…

There were words, a label, scrawled in pencil across the top white border:

Stryder Ranch, 1904, in the morning shadow of…

"Picacho Peak," I said quietly.

He'll have figured it out, too, even if they never found Sharon. I know Jared will have put it together. He's smarter than me, and he has the picture; he probably saw the answer before I did. He could be so close…

The thought had her so filled with yearning and excitement that the blank wall in my head slipped entirely.

I saw the whole journey now, saw her and Jared's and Jamie's careful trek across the country, always by night in their inconspicuous stolen vehicle. It took weeks. I saw where she'd left them in a wooded preserve outside the city, so different from the empty desert they were used to. The cold forest where Jared and Jamie would hide and wait had felt safer in some ways-because the branches were thick and concealing, unlike the spindly desert foliage that hid little-but also more dangerous in its unfamiliar smells and sounds.

Then the separation, a memory so painful we skipped through it, flinching. Next came the abandoned building she'd hidden in, watching the house across the street for her chance. There, concealed within the walls or in the secret basement, she hoped to find Sharon.

I shouldn't have let you see that, Melanie thought. The faintness of her silent voice gave away her fatigue. The assault of memories, the persuasion and coercion, had tired her. You'll tell them where to find her. You'll kill her, too.

"Yes," I mused aloud. "I have to do my duty."

Why? she murmured, almost sleepily. What happiness will it bring you?

I didn't want to argue with her, so I said nothing.

The mountain loomed larger ahead of us. In moments, we would be beneath it. I could see a little rest stop with a convenience store and a fast food restaurant bordered on one side by a flat, concrete space-a place for mobile homes. There were only a few in residence now, with the heat of the coming summer making things uncomfortable.

What now? I wondered. Stop for a late lunch or an early dinner? Fill my gas tank and then continue on to Tucson in order to reveal my fresh discoveries to the Seeker?

The thought was so repellent that my jaw locked against the sudden heave of my empty stomach. I slammed on the brake reflexively, screeching to a stop in the middle of the lane. I was lucky; there were no cars to hit me from behind. There were also no drivers to stop and offer their help and concern. For this moment, the highway was empty. The sun beat down on the pavement, making it shimmer, disappear in places.

This shouldn't have felt like a betrayal, the idea of continuing on my right and proper course. My first language, the true language of the soul that was spoken only on our planet of origin, had no word for betrayal or traitor. Or even loyalty-because without the existence of an opposite, the concept had no meaning.

And yet I felt a deep well of guilt at the very idea of the Seeker. It would be wrong to tell her what I knew. Wrong, how? I countered my own thought viciously. If I stopped here and listened to the seductive suggestions of my host, I would truly be a traitor. That was impossible. I was a soul.

And yet I knew what I wanted, more powerfully and vividly than anything I had ever wanted in all the eight lives I'd lived. The image of Jared's face danced behind my eyelids when I blinked against the sun-not Melanie's memory this time, but my memory of hers. She forced nothing on me now. I could barely feel her in my head as she waited-I imagined her holding her breath, as if that were possible-for me to make my decision.

I could not separate myself from this body's wants. It was me, more than I'd ever intended it to be. Did I want or did it want? Did that distinction even matter now?

In my rearview mirror, the glint of the sun off a distant car caught my eye.

I moved my foot to the accelerator, starting slowly toward the little store in the shadow of the peak. There was really only one thing to do.

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